Vladimir Putin may believe time is ripe for another invasion


Russian military personnel surround a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoe in March 2014. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The Crimea crisis has come from nowhere but the Russian president has form for military adventures in Olympic years, says Luke Harding.
The situation in Crimea looks ominous. Russia’s FSB spy agency said on Wednesday that it had foiled a series of attacks by armed Ukrainians on the peninsula. Minutes later, Vladimir Putin accused Kiev’s pro-western government of choosing terror over peace. Meanwhile, largely unnoticed by the outside world, Russia has been stealthily shipping military vehicles to Crimea, which Putin annexed in the spring of 2014.

What is going on? As ever in the opaque world of neo-Kremlinology, nobody quite knows. But two years after Putin sent “little green men” – actually undercover Russian special forces soldiers – to overrun Crimea, another military offensive seems distinctly possible. Crimea’s “parliament” said Ukraine had already launched an undeclared war. Ukraine says the supposed plot is FSB fiction.

The new Crimea crisis has come from nowhere. Over in the east there have been daily clashes between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian government forces in Donestk and Luhansk, with a spike in recent weeks. But the Perekop isthmus, the rustic sliver of territory between Crimea and Ukraine’s southern Kherson province, has been quiet. There was no fighting here even in 2014, when Putin staged his land grab.

All of this leads to the suspicion, voiced by Carl Bildt, Sweden’s former prime minister and others, that Russia may be about to invade again.

When it comes to the month of August, Putin has form. His previous invasions have coincided with Olympic Games, a time when the international community is distracted or on holiday – Georgia in 2008 after Beijing, and Ukraine in 2014 (after the Winter Games in Sochi.
There are other propitious circumstances this summer. The presidential election is paralysing the US, and the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has hinted that as president he might recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He seems uncertain as to where Ukraine actually is. Europe meanwhile is in disarray in the wake of the Brexit vote and an ongoing migration crisis.

Seizing Crimea seemed a good idea in 2014, and it was achieved with remarkable ease. As the Russian writer Leonid Kaganov put it, however, it was a bit like stealing an expensive phone without its charger. Once a peninsula, the region is now effectively an island. Putin has announced plans to build a bridge across the Kerch Strait, connecting it to the Russian mainland, but he has entrusted the job to a childhood friend, Arkady Rotenberg, and it is unlikely to be finished any time soon.

In the meantime, Crimeans, most of whom still support Russia, have suffered a series of electricity blackouts and other indignities. Last November Ukrainian activists blew up energy pipelines to Crimea, plunging homes into darkness. People ate dinner by candlelight, factories shut down and for the first few days even traffic lights stopped working. The peninsula’s water supply is also vulnerable. It gets all of its water via the north Crimean canal, currently in Ukraine.

At this point there seem to be three possible scenarios. One is that Putin will try to leverage this latest crisis to persuade EU countries to drop the sanctions imposed over the Ukraine conflict. Another is that he is preparing a limited military incursion, possibly to set up a security corridor, which doubtless would include the electricity station in the nearby Ukrainian city of Kherson. A third is that he is planning something bigger.

In spring 2014 there was speculation that he would seek to carve out a land corridor connecting separatist Donetsk and Luhansk with Crimea. That would involve over-running Ukrainian forces in the port city of Mariupol and advancing along the coast. The Kremlin also floated the idea of Novorossiya, a historical pseudo-entity encompassing Ukraine’s southern and south-eastern Russian-speaking regions.

None of this happened, but a land corridor would certainly be an attractive solution to Crimea’s current woes, and would at a stroke solve Russia’s short and long-term infrastructure problems. There would be political dividends too. From the Kremlin’s point of view, a further Ukraine adventure would conclusively demonstrate the west’s weakness and incapacity.

At a time when US swimmers are openly taunting their Russian rivals in the pool, it would also be payback for the doping scandal and international attempts to ban Russian athletes from the Olympics. Putin cares deeply about sport. The Wada report on Russian state-sponsored doping has been presented inside Russia as a western conspiracy. Putin may be showing who is boss.

Luke Harding, The Guardian

Author: Редакция Avdet